You get what you stump up for, unless, that is, you're buying a desktop firewall. In that case, paying nothing or not bothering at all might be a valid recommendation, according to some recent tests.

A recent and thorough Firewall Challenge test of a large number of these by Matousec rated four out of the top 10 Windows XP-oriented products as being free products, with many of the remainder made up mainly of unfamiliar specialist names most users would probably not come across often.

In fact, only nine out of the 35 tested were recommended at all, leaving a host of well-known names languishing in the dead regions of a rather depressing table. One product rocketed from ‘poor' to ‘excellent' in moving from version 2.4 to version 3.0, so timing could matter.

If one takes Matousec at face value - they are respected and outline the tests they used in detail - then you'd also conclude that desktop firewalls, beyond the basic filtering in Windows itself, are mostly a waste of time.

In fairness, these products were protecting a promiscuous charge, Windows XP, at a time when the days of the standalone firewall look numbered. With Windows Vista to program for, perhaps some of the vendors have just given up developing for XP.

Given that most of the poorly-performing desktop firewalls were the better-known names, is it right to conclude that putting these security functions into large do-it-all programs will just serve to hide their deficiencies? And if good standalone firewalls survive, will anyone be interested in buying them?